Jonathan Sumption's fourth and penultimate volume of his extraordinary narrative history of the Hundred Years War focuses on the fascinating period from roughly 1399 to 1422: that is, from the deposition of Richard II in England and the beginnings of the civil war in France to the deaths of Henry V of England and Charles VI of France. This chronological account thus investigates what was, even by the tumultuous standards of the Middle Ages, a profoundly chaotic time. As an overarching theme, Sumption has subtitled the volume "Cursed Kings," and a reading of this massive tome reveals the aptness of the choice: the author's attentions are sharply focused on the troubles of the men wearing (and those seeking to wear) the crowns of France and England.
This focus is hardly surprising. The Hundred Years War is at its core the conflict between these two kingdoms, and it is certainly a kind of historical commonplace to view a monarchical realm as an extension of its crown. Sumption's decision to tell the tale as it has been traditionally told, therefore, is far from unexpected.
At the same time, if there is any complaint to be made about Sumption's undertaking, it is in observing how closely it hews to this standard approach. Approachable, impressively organized, erudite, and engagingly well-written, Cursed Kings is a fantastic one-stop compendium of received history across the period--but it is rarely more. Original approaches and new critical chances are few and far between, replaced instead by a traditional and typically Anglo-centric view of history. Thus the great English victory at the Battle of Agincourt receives much detailed and breathless (though hardly revelatory) attention in the book, while the great Franco-Scottish victory at the Battle of Baugé is something to be dealt with in far more summary terms.
As another example, the Welsh revolt of Owain Glyndwr--to whom Sumption refers, inaccurate to both history and linguistics but in accord with a mistaken English tradition, as Owen Glendower--is mentioned only as a side note to the history of the period, despite the fact that recent studies have shown that it had a far greater impact and represented a far greater existential threat to England than traditional English histories have understood. Likewise, the fascinating French invasion of England in 1405, which was executed in conjunction with Glyndwr's rebellion and actually reached as far as Hereford, merits a mere three pages of cursory discussion despite the great many questions it presents regarding Wales as a front in the Hundred Years War. It gets so little attention, one must assume, because it has been traditionally ignored by historians of the period. Whatever goals Sumption had in composing this book, reclaiming new history from old historical presumptions cannot have been among them.
This is not to deny the fact that the Hundred Years War was nominally about the bloodshed between France and England. It most certainly was, and a book of this kind that ignored or brushed aside Henry V's achievement at Agincourt would be a strange book indeed. Such things need to be told. Yet it is nevertheless true that the Hundred Years War metastasized to stretch across the entire theater of Europe in direct and measurable ways. Unfortunately, one receives little sense of this from Sumption's work, in which the motives and manipulations of other polities in the period are only mentioned insofar as they directly touch upon the unfolding stories of the French and English kings. This may play well to an Anglo-centric view of history, but it seems somewhat at odds with the broader political truth of the times. One needs only to observe how scant an examination the author makes of the long-term political maneuvering of Sigismund of Luxembourg--whose grandfather had died in legendary service to the French crown at Crécy yet who himself would sign an important treaty with the English crown in 1426--to recognize that opportunities at a wider perspective have been missed. So, too, with the unfolding of the war in the Low Countries, or the manipulations of the international banking systems that were required for the execution of conflict on such a scale and length--and which had their own motivations and circumstances. And all that is to say nothing of the impact of the Hundred Years War as it was lived among the people, far away from the gilded royal halls that are Sumption's near-constant focus.
Sumption's grand enterprise, in other words, is in large measure the definitive compendium of the traditional view of the Hundred Years War as a conflict of two nations. Accepting it for what it is--an Anglo-centric examination of the Anglo-centric view that the Hundred Years War was an Anglo-centric conflict, it is, in all truth, a work of staggering importance. Time and again during the reading of this extremely readable work, I found myself wrestling with one of the many problems presented by living in a hyperbolic society: our exaggerated rhetoric leaves us with smaller and smaller linguistic spaces in which to fit those things that are truly beyond the ordinary. When the tech guy restarting smartphones at your local Apple Store is a card-carrying "genius," what then do we say of Shakespeare, of Einstein, of Jefferson?
I thought about this vocabulary conundrum because while I want to call this significant study monumental, I found myself flummoxed by this communal rhetoric. After all, The Independent recently described the 2016 Grammy Awards as "a monumental evening" for Justin Bieber, who won the Grammy for Best Dance Recording (for his collaboration "Where Are Ü Now," featuring Skrillex and Diplo, in case you were wondering). Regardless of whether Bieber, Skrillex, and Diplo were deserving of such accolades (I'm in no position to judge, r Ü?), this common parlance of monumental leaves me in doubt of how to conclude my judgment of the sheer scale and importance of Sumption's work.
In the end, the word that fits this undertaking best, I believe, is generational. It is generational in terms of its rarity, for its like comes not often into our hands. It is generational in terms of the effort behind it, for Sumption has been toiling at this project for nearly forty years now. And it is generational, too, in that it could be said to codify the standard interpretation of the Hundred Years War of the preceding generation of scholarship. It is not, as I have said, the place to find the incorporation of recent work in the field. It is, one might say, dated. But rather than view this characteristic as exclusively negative, I view it instead as intensely positive: in this monumental, extraordinary, generational project, Sumption essentially summarizes the Hundred Years War as it stood at the end of the twentieth century. There is a great service in this, and a great necessity in the stabilization of ground that it provides for the next generations of scholars to build against and upon. And even beyond all this, it is simply an accessible and enjoyable narrative history. On that level alone it should serve as an exemplary model for us all.